Youth Disconnection

There’s a problem with our conception of progress in America today. It’s based on money measures and not much else. Measure of America creates metrics to tell us about how people are doing. One fundamental indicator of societal progress and well-being is how young people are faring in their transition to adulthood. And on this measure, 4.4 million young people are falling behind.

Disconnected youth are teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. There are 4,353,300 disconnected youth in America today, or about one in nine teens and young adults (11.2 percent).

These vulnerable young people are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults. And the negative effects of youth disconnection ricochet across the economy, the social sector, the criminal justice system, and the political landscape, affecting us all.


Since Measure of America first wrote about youth disconnection half a decade ago, public awareness of both the plight and the promise of young people who are not in either school or the workforce has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, fewer young people are disconnected from school and work today than were before the Great Recession. But challenges remain: 4.4 million young women and men are still disconnected from the educational and employment opportunities required for rewarding, productive lives.

Until Measure of America began analyzing the disconnected youth population in 2012, these data were not available. This research is essential to provide policymakers, business leaders, philanthropists, community leaders with the up-to-date data they need to target and tailor their interventions and assess the effectiveness of their efforts.

Measure of America has produced seven national-level reports on youth disconnection, most recently in June 2020, as well as a study of long-term impacts, several briefs about disconnection at the congressional district level, and an interactive data tool.

Check out Career360: An Employer-Led Approach to Bridging the Opportunity Divide, a white paper about youth disconnection in Chicago co-authored by Measure of America and LeadersUp.

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  • Nationally: The 2018 youth disconnection rate is 11.2 percent, or one in nine young people, down from 11.5 percent in 2017. The country’s disconnected youth are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, more than three times as likely to have a disability of some kind, nine times as likely to have dropped out of high school, and more than twenty times as likely to be living in institutionalized group quarters as their connected counterparts. Disconnected young women are over four times as likely to be mothers as their connected peers.
  • Gender: Girls and young women are less likely to be disconnected than boys and young men, 10.8 percent versus 11.5 percent. But the gender gap varies by race and ethnicity. For Latino and Native American youth, young women have slightly higher disconnection rates, whereas for black and white youth, young men do.
  • Race and ethnicity: Native American youth have a disconnection rate of 23.4 percent, the highest of the United States’ five major racial and ethnic groups. Black teens and young adults have the second-highest disconnection rate, 17.4 percent, followed by Latino (12.8 percent), white (9.2 percent), and Asian (6.2 percent) young people.
  • States: North Dakota has the lowest youth disconnection rate of any state  (5.4 percent) and Alaska has the highest (18.1 percent). Alaska experienced the largest increase in the share of disconnected young people between 2017 and 2018, 28.0 percent. The largest drop in disconnection was achieved by Utah, from 9.6 percent in 2017 to 7.3 percent in 2018, a decrease of 24.9 percent. The lowest state-level disconnection rate for young black men (Massachusetts, 11.1 percent) is still well above that same state’s rate for young white men (6.0 percent).
  • Public use microdata areas (PUMAs): The ten best-performing PUMAs can all be found in affluent sections of large cities or in well-to-do suburbs of major metro areas, and all have youth disconnection rates below 3 percent. The ten PUMAs facing the greatest challenges have youth disconnection rates that range from 29.8 percent to 36.1 percent. Two types of communities are found in this group: low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods in large metro areas, and isolated rural areas characterized by long-term, deep poverty. PUMAs are areas defined by the US Census Bureau; they have populations of at least 100,000 people. To create these geographies, urban counties are split into many PUMAs (Los Angeles has 69, for example) and sparsely populated rural counties are joined together. The result is places with similarly-sized population groups that allow for apples-to-apples comparisons.
  • Community Types: A group of PUMAs termed “rural opportunity deserts” in our typology has the highest disconnection rates, with an average of 25.5 percent. Contrary to the typical portrayal of rural areas as overwhelmingly white, 20.3 percent of youth in the country’s most disadvantaged rural areas are black, 24.4 percent are Latino, and 6.4 percent are Native American.


Covid-19 has likely erased ten years’ progress in reducing the national youth disconnection rate in a matter of months. It is difficult, at the height of the pandemic, to make recommendations for a future whose landscape we cannot yet divine. Nonetheless, a few things are clear. The 2020 youth disconnection rate will spike, and disconnected youth and their families will be hit the hardest. Read about challenges and recommendations here.